COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A few hours before the Democratic debate Tuesday, the Bernie Sanders campaign sent out word that it had organized 4,000 watch parties across the country. It was hard to confirm that number, but Team Sanders did link to a map of the U.S. with a dot marking every party, and there were certainly a lot of dots.
One of those dots was at the University of Maryland. And the watch party wasn't a dozen people gathered at someone's house or a small room in a brew pub. Instead, the pro-Sanders group Terps for Bernie, working with co-sponsor the University of Maryland College Democrats, reserved a 500-seat auditorium at the Stamp Student Union and managed to fill about 300. As he has across the country, Bernie got a big turnout.
Yes, the Terps for Bernie love Bernie. But just as important in this race, many just don't like Hillary. What young and idealistic college student would? Sanders inspires their passion about inequality, about climate change, money in politics, gay rights. Clinton doesn't.
"She's the epitome of the establishment and the corrupt politicians, and there are so many things to dislike about her," said J.T. Stanley, a senior who is one of the co-founders of Terps for Bernie. "My number-one issue is money in politics, because we can't do anything about global warming until we get the money out of the system. That's my single issue, and that's why I despise Hillary. She's the devil."
Perhaps that was a little extreme; Stanley did describe his views as "radical." But there weren't the warmest feelings for Clinton elsewhere in the room, either.
"It's easy to view her as someone who flip flops on the issues," said another Terps for Bernie co-founder, Christopher Walkup, a junior. "It just seems like she's moving farther to the Left to pander to that demographic, and not because she authentically believes in that … She just seems to be getting more liberal the more liberal her opponents get."
Walkup said he realized not long ago that when Hillary Clinton was the age he is now, she was a Barry Goldwater supporter. Case closed.
Even the students who are open to Clinton have found supporting her a difficult task. "I actually used to feel very strongly towards Hillary Clinton, I was very excited to see the first woman in the White House," said Cayli Baker, a sophomore who is vice president of University of Maryland College Democrats, which organized the event along with Terps for Bernie. "I feel like I've parted from her a bit personally based on my ideology and the stances she's taken on things. I feel very up in the air right now."
Baker, deeply concerned about climate change, cited the long time Clinton took to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline as one reason for her doubts. "I used to be very, very committed to the Ready for Hillary movement, but now I'm kind of questioning who I'll vote for."
When the debate began, Sanders pushed virtually all the crowd's buttons — and that was just his opening statement. Money in politics. Climate change. Mass incarceration. CNN moderator Anderson Cooper summed up the contrast in his first question to Clinton, when he described her flip-flops and asked, "Will you say anything to get elected?"
Cheers for the question, and jeers for Clinton. The crowd liked that one a lot.
There's no doubt Sanders had a few rough moments early in the debate. He didn't do well on foreign-policy and seemed to space out when Cooper asked him to react to a meandering national security statement from fellow candidate Jim Webb. "Sen. Sanders, I want you to be able to respond," said Cooper. "Pardon me?" said Sanders.
But as the students saw it, Sanders gathered strength as he went along. A strong answer on Black Lives Matter. A tough retort to Clinton on breaking up the big banks — "Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress." A stand for legalized marijuana and against the war on drugs. And all along, denunciations of millionaires and billionaires and the one percent or one-tenth of one percent who are taking a grossly disproportionate share of the nation's wealth.
There was one unusual factor in play in the room. It was the University of Maryland, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was one of the candidates on stage. Many of the students were home-staters, and while they had no memory of Hillary Clinton's time in the White House as first lady, they did remember O'Malley as their governor. Although O'Malley, struggling to find his footing in the race, probably helped himself in the debate nationwide, there was definitely more pro-O'Malley feeling in the Stamp Student Union than in other gatherings across the country.
Before the debate, as students came in, the organizers gave each a clear plastic bead. The idea was that after the debate, there would be a jar for each candidate, and people would put their beads in the jar of the candidate they thought won the debate. Not everybody voted, but when it was all over, Bernie was the big winner, with 139 votes. O'Malley came in second with 67 votes.
And Hillary? Just 17 votes. Out of a total of 233 cast, Clinton won just 17 votes. (Webb and Lincoln Chafee got five apiece.) This is just a guess, but even if O'Malley had not received some favorite-son support, Clinton wouldn't have benefited. She just doesn't excite them. Bernie was the man before the debate, and he remained the man after the debate.
When it was over, a number of quickie assessments by national reporters and analysts confidently declared Clinton winner of the debate. ("Clinton crushes it," reported Politico.) But focus groups showed something different. A group on Fox News, along with one on CNN, some online polls, and social media indicators — they all said Sanders won. None of it was scientific, but it pointed to a phenomenon that's often seen in this kind of situation. Establishment opinion awards victory to the most polished performer — on Tuesday night, that was certainly Clinton — while voters look past the performance to the substance, with sometimes differing results.
That's what happened in College Park. And it appears the same thing happened in a lot of places across the country, too. No, Bernie didn't win the style contest. But he came out just fine.